Gordon Parks exhibition offers haunting look at segregated South

African-American photographer Gordon Parks’ images at the High Museum capture a strange and not-so-distant America.

Lived history for many, this America will nevertheless have the appearance of an alien landscape for others: a place of shocking poverty, with dirt front yards and barefoot children and houses that have never seen the saving grace of a coat of paint.

But poverty in the rural South of the 1950s is far from the worst of what Parks documented in “Gordon Parks: Segregation Story,” when he traveled from New York City to the Deep South on assignment for Life magazine. The soul-crushing segregation he found in rural Alabama made the trip so dangerous Parks was assigned an African-American “guide” to help him safely navigate this frightening alternate reality.

A self-taught photographer, Parks was the consummate New York success story, a poor kid from Fort Scott, Kan., who fought racism on his own homefront, but rose to become a successful high fashion photographer and Life’s first African-American photographer and who went on to usher in the blaxploitation film genre when he directed the 1971 smash “Shaft.”

Though the history of civil rights in America exists for most of us in black and white, Parks shot his images in color. And what a difference that makes: His images seem more relatable, more contemporary, and all the more shockingly relevant without the distancing effect black-and-white film can sometimes give. Parks captures the daily, lived experience of racism in “colored” signs at movie theaters and water fountains and in a powerful sense of a line drawn down the center of all things, with whites grabbing the tastiest, most well-appointed morsels on one side, and blacks given the crumbs on the other.

For his assignment, Parks focused on the multigenerational Thornton, Causey and Tanner families who lived near Mobile, Ala., and whose patriarch and matriarch Mr. and Mrs. Albert Thornton are captured by Parks in a formal portrait on their living room couch. The extended family included teachers and farmers, rural folk and townies, and Parks documented both the warmth of their home lives in his fly-on-the-wall vantage at intimate family gatherings, and the difficulty of their public experiences under segregation.

Even the ostensibly happier moments become compromised, in Parks’ clever lensing, as in “Ondria Tanner and Her Grandmother Window-Shopping” (1956). Two generations stand behind a wall of glass, shot outside a display case looking in at a room of smiling white mannequin children. The grandmother’s hand placed over her granddaughter’s chest seems a gesture of both protection and restraint, as if physically warning the little girl about dreams involving the contentment and finery of those frozen white children. Even in the fantasy of retail, where all dreams promise to be fulfilled with the price of a dress or a pair of shoes, the image conveys the impossibility of ever truly realizing the American dream as long as segregation set the terms.

In this and many other images, Parks often homes in on children, to show the suffocating injustice of reminding small children of their limitations. “Outside Looking In” is just such an image of the Thorntons’ great-grandchildren separated by a high chain-link fence, but gazing longingly at a well-appointed white playground in their neighborhood. You get a sense in such images of all of the magical, happy moments of childhood: visits to the ice cream stand, fancy dress-up clothes, cherished time with loved ones, tainted by the specter of racism.

Alongside those more message-oriented images are classic portraits. Parks’ poignant studies of children and teenagers gazing into the camera are haunting for the unspoken angst they convey: that all the promise and hopefulness of youth couldn’t stand a chance with the limits imposed by Jim Crow.

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